Streetside Grills on Summery Nights

Authors: Victor Paul Borg


About the Author: Victor Paul Borg is from Malta. He has lived in six countries on three continents and spent much of the past 12 years in Asia. He currently spends his time in Europe and China. His travel articles and photographs have been published around the world.
streetside grills in Chengdustreetside grills in Chengdu
streetside grills in Chengdu
There are few sights and aromas that speak of Chengdu and other cities in the Sichuan basin than the shaokao stalls in street corners and clearings of many neighbourhoods in the evenings. The smell of grilled meat, accompanied by an aroma of spices, particularly cumin and the boisterousness of the punters is something that speaks of Sichuan; it's one of the quintessential experiences of the Sichuanese way of life and merriment that visitors to Chengdu speak of admiringly. For, although streetside grills can be found sparingly in other parts of China, nowhere are the grill stalls as ubiquitous as in Chengdu, and nowhere is the beer-swilling so liberal.
Visitors to Chengdu are impressed by the copious amounts of beer consumed on the tables set around the grill stalls, and the heaviness of the food - the skewers of meats and vegetables and tofu daubed thick mixtures of oil, ground chili, ground cumin and salt. Some stalls also do other foods, such as soup or noodles; some even do seafood delicacies, including oysters and raw baby prawns in piquant sauces.
Among all these ingredients it's the ground cumin that stands out peculiarly. For cumin is a spice of the cuisines of central and south Asia - it's one of the major spices, in its seed form as well as ground form, in Indian cuisine - and in China it's used in Sichuan and is especially common in Xinjiang, where it's also daubed on grilled meats.
Different forms of streetside grills are also popular in other scattered parts of Southeast Asia. These manifestations of skewered, grilled foods take the form of chicken satay in Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as skewered meats in Cambodia and Laos. Most popular in the latter are the skewers of fatty pork that are popular in Isaan region of Thailand, eaten with sticky rice dipped in chilli sauce.
It's a version of grill that's now become popular in many Thai cities, particularly Bangkok. The grilled, glistening skewers of pork are eaten by hand with sticky rice, the rice dipped in a chilli sauce that's made from fish sauce, squeezed lime, dried ground chilli, and roasted ground rice. Other grilled foodstuffs are also popular in Bangkok, and these include fishes (cockles grilled in their shell, prawns grilled whole, and sea bream wrapped in foil and grilled, and mackerel; grilled seafood is served with a chilli sauce made from fresh crushed green chillies, squeezed lime, fish sauce, lemon grass, and sugar).
streetside grills in Thailandstreetside grills in Thailand
streetside grills in Thailand
Another Asian country where streetside grills are especially popular is the Philippines - streetside grills appear at dusk throughout most Filipino cities - grills are called ihawihaw in the Philippines. A range of skewers are grilled plainly - skewers of pork or chicken, whole gutted fish, cockles, prawns. Grilled meats are sometimes marinated in a mixture of finely chopped onion and garlic and chilli, sugar, tomato ketchup, and oil. Another specialty is pork or chicken liver cooked in two stages, initially stewed in soy sauce based stew and then grilled. All grilled meats are served with a dipping sauce that's usually made of soy sauce, squeezed lemon, chopped onion and chopped red chilli. A unique manifestation in the Philippines is a whole squid stuffed with chopped onions and tomatoes and grilled.
Yet the oddest of grills in the Philippines is the lechon, a whole suckling pig of around 30kg in weight grilled. Preparation takes an entire afternoon: the belly is knifed open and the innards removed, then tamarind leaves are stuffed into the belly and the belly is stitched shut again. The pig is then roasted on a barbecue for two to three hours, turning occasionally. During the cooking, the skin is basted with milk so that the fat on the skin doesn't scorch, and so that the skin becomes an attractive brown-red colour. Lechon is typically cooked on special occasions such as births, marriages. It is also found in stalls in cities throughout the Philippines in the evenings. Filipinos never tire of it: it's the king of grills.
Back in Chengdu, street grills are more than just inexpensive on-the-go eats as in other places in Asia. People make an evening of the occasion, and even more than a way of life the shaokao stalls are an expression of egalitarianism and inclusiveness. All kinds of people partake in shaokao evening affairs, there is no distinction between rich and poor, between the urbane and the couth, the cultured and uncultured – this is what gives depth and vigour to the culture of shaokao in Sichuan's cities, this is why it's so popular in Sichuan.

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